First day of classes in the Utrecht Science Park. Photo: DUB

A sea of awkwardness

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Campus columnist Lili Szarvas feels a bit awkward upon returning to a crowded campus. Life seems to have gone back to normal at the university, but interacting with other people feels surprisingly uncomfortable.

Do you know that slightly awkward turn of events when someone you had just met is sat next to you during class and then after completing the mandatory small talk about nationalities and what your major is, said person sneezes? You say “bless you”, and squeeze in a friendly smile too – after all you’re past the difficult part. And then the poor soul next to you, sneezes another one. And another one. And five times more. For me, this is when social anxiety kicks in and puts me in a blue funk: am I supposed to bless them every time? How many gezonheids is one entitled to?

Starting the new academic year has brought about unexpected challenges not only for university students, but for every single person who was isolated since the launch of Covid measures. Now, everything feels awkward: stumbling on the doorstep on your way out (even though your only witness is the neighborhood cat staring at you from under a car), overtaking an elderly citizen with your bike, and nonchalantly wiping the sweat off your forehead after finally making it to the classroom. And then come the painful rounds of introductions and the never-ending row of sneezes and coughs, which sound like sneezing, but people get offended if you think they sneezed.

Moreover, let’s not forget about the remarkable experience of diving into the crowd of students on your way out. Yes, this sea of awkward people could be the synonym for so many things. First of all, it could represent freedom since after 1.5 years, students are finally able to actually see this many people live in one go. Secondly, the feelings coming over me when I enter this swirling mass remind me of the way I am engulfed by the sea of decisions one has to make in this age. There are so many routes to cross, so many choices in the vast possibilities of the sea of people – who to pass by the short haired girl or the teacher with red socks, who will you let push you and who to push back... One has to sail through the crowd like a solitary, but reckless pirate and not be thrown off by the crush and noise of diving into this sea of decisions and people. Last, but not least this sea can entail the swirling mass of awkwardness and social discomfort that we feel after having been isolated for months. We feel suffocated, overwhelmed, cringe, and uncomfortable because of the long awaited human contact and cannot let go of the thought: what do others think of me right now?

Well, maybe this awkwardness is the key detergent for making friends and getting ahead in this world – after all, other people are absolutely as real as you are, not just tools or examples to make yourself feel the strange bliss of self-consciousness and discomfort.  One has to learn to see the beautiful rhythm in this mass and realize that each of us are individual currents in a big warm sea.

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